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How did I get into freelancing?

I don’t want to use the J word, but I have been deleting old emails recently and it reminded me about the way my freelancing career has developed over the years.

At first it all started as an extra to full time work. I left English Heritage to work at the London Borough of Camden on a Heritage Lottery Funded project, but I was keen to continue to do something in association with the Charles Darwin Trust and, as it turned out, they wanted that too so I started to do some writing and teaching work with them. During the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and 150th year since the publication of Origin, 2009, I was very busy with work for them as well as work for Camden. It quietened down a little in 2010, and then got quieter still after that, and I had a new baby which also reduced the amount I could do.

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Pitt Rivers Museum at night

I eventually moved from the London Borough of Camden to another employed role at the Pitt Rivers Museum and freelancing went by the wayside. After the maternity cover contract ended I decided to go it on my own. The costs of childcare while working full-time were too onerous and I wanted to spend more time with my little one. At first I trained to be a childminder and managed three months of this. Childminding is not an easy job, let me tell you. I was more tired doing that than any other job I have had, and I have worked as a field archaeologist, in the catering industry and now visit schools to do days of teaching, all of which are tiring but not like childminding. So I looked for other things.

All of a sudden, I found things. I had experience of writing for teachers through English Heritage and the National Museums Online Learning Project so a friend introduced me to a friend who had set up a business called Plan Bee. She needed a history specialist to write lesson plans and resources for the new curriculum so I took that on, writing lesson plans on the Prehistory of Britain, the Shang Dynasty of China, and the Kingdom of Benin, for instance. With this experience under my belt I approached the Hamilton Trust, on the advice of another friend, and said I could write their Prehistory of Britain topic. I found the Hamilton Trust work much more in depth and I still write for them, just recently having finished a recap of all British history for a post-SATS topic for Year 6s.

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Roman cooking day at Wycombe Museum

At the same time I had applied for two local jobs. One was as a secretary for my village’s Neighbourhood Plan at £10 an hour and this lasted for over a year with me working mainly in the evenings. I also applied to be a workshop leader at the Chiltern Open Air Museum and I work there still on a zero-hours contract mainly teaching schools but also families and home ed groups. I also volunteered for Kids in Museums and an opportunity came along to take over organising their workshops on working with families and young people.

I set up Schools Prehistory in order to get information out to teachers for the new topic in primary history, as it is my specialist subject, and I think on the back of that was approached by a contact from the British Museum (which was part of the National Museums Online Learning Project that I had written for) to apply for a job as a writer on the Teaching History in 100 Objects website that the DoE had funded to support the new history curriculum across Key Stages. I wrote about lots of objects for them from Late Bronze Age logboats from Must Farm to a cloth celebrating Ghanaian independence from 1957.

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Stone Age Woman, hear me roar

I also started marketing myself as a time travelling visitor with Schools Prehistory to schools and still visit schools across the south-east and midlands as a Stone Age, Roman, Saxon of Viking woman or as an archaeologist, sometimes with colleagues and sometimes on my own. I had difficulty in selling lesson plans through my own website so now they can be downloaded if teachers sign up to my newsletter.

As a time traveller, and for the purpose of developing a Mesolithic workshop at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, I developed some bushcraft skills and so my latest venture has been to set up 500 BC. I asked the Forestry Commission, who look after Wendover Woods near me, whether I could work on their site and duly applied for a licence to do so and now run toddler groups, home ed courses, family and adult bushcraft days, holiday clubs, school visits and team-building workshops. I am expanding to other sites and to sub-contracting.

I have also tendered for shorter freelance contracts conducting market research with families, or devising and piloting schools workshops but have not had much luck with those. Where I have been successful it’s usually through recommendations and word of mouth.

This isn’t meant to be a self-congratulatory post. I wanted to show how I built my freelancing portfolio, which is a little unusual, but has all the elements of how to be successful at freelancing whatever field you’re in.

  1. Network. Having a good network that you stay in contact with via social media and attending sector events is essential.
  2. Don’t be afraid to approach people cold. Before you do this you have to do your research and be sure that they want something only you can offer.
  3. Create your own opportunities if you can – apply for funding, see a need in the market you can fulfill.
  4. Collaborate. Find like-minded people you can sub-contract to (you’ll need employer’s insurance) or pass work to, and they will hopefully pass some back.
  5. Try to have a couple of relationships that bring in a regular income and supplement them with shorter contracts. Then when you need to find the next job, you still have a little work and money to tide you over (I can’t say I’m very good at saving!)
  6. Be flexible. Not everything you will end up doing is going to totally rock your world. As you get more confident and busier, you will be able to say ‘No thanks’ to those contracts that don’t totally float your boat.
  7. I hate saying this, because it’s not something I love doing, but you will need a brand. Either that’s your name or a trading name that will represent you. As you can see, I have a couple of different ones for different strands of my work.
  8. If something doesn’t work, learn from it and move on.
  9. Keep at it!
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Teaching outside the classroom

spider-021I just had a random thought this morning that all this talk from archaeologists like me but also ecologists, scientists, artists, business people, teachers themselves and many, many others about the importance of learning outside the classroom may belie an underlying, perhaps subconscious, assumption that school is not the best place to teach kids.

I say perhaps subconscious because most of us are aware of how much work teachers put in to creating engaging experiences for their kids, and I always try to write engaging materials for teachers to use in their constrained environment. But on the other hand we are also aware of just how much more engaging, stimulating, exciting and challenging learning outside the classroom in the school field, the library, a park, a museum, a gallery, a theatre (the list is endless), can be.

rsz_scrapbook-030Kids used to learn outside the classroom all the time, before universal schooling. Did they learn more, or better, then? I guess not, learning to read, write and, to a certain extent, do maths is difficult outside a classroom. I seem to be arguing for a focus on the three Rs in schools and jettisoning the arts, humanities and sciences from the curricula. But that’s not the essence of my argument. I’m arguing for embracing more creative ways to teach the non-core subjects that will also support and apply the core skills.

photoEverything that can be taught outside the classroom, should be taught outside the classroom. Schools could become arbiters of real life experiences rather than child corrals. I guess that’s where many home-edders are coming from. The logistics would be horrendous and state funding would have to be massively increased, but it’s a thought.

Teaching History in 100 Objects

teachinghist100objectsThe British Museum was commissioned by the Department for Education to create resources for the new history curriculum at Key Stage 2 and 3, Teaching History in 100 Objects. The format was similar to the radio series by the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects. In reality these 100 objects were just jumping off points for finding an infinite array of objects to use in the classroom.

I wrote all the object files for the new area of the Key Stage 2 curriculum, Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. Some of these objects are really iconic to archaeologists so it was very excited to be able to write about them.

It was very interesting to work out what the big messages embodied in the objects were, rather than explain it from an archaeological perspective. The red deer frontlet headdress from Star Carr, for instance, stood for the rich and complex culture and belief systems of the early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. A saddle quern from Wales reflected the change to farming and the important role of women (presumably the ones who used the querns to grind grain, though I’m happy to be challenged on that interpretation) in the Neolithic.

Doing this work also introduced me for the first time to the Must Farm excavations, which are ongoing. The earlier excavations uncovered eight scuttled logboats dating from the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, preserved in the waterlogged mud of an ancient riverbed. I was very lucky to go and visit the more recent excavations of a roundhouse that had been preserved by conflagration and then submergence in the same water, a little downstream.

I also wrote about Anglo-Saxon, Pictish and Scottish objects for the Key Stage 2 curriculum and a selection of later objects for the Key Stage 3 curriculum, including a demi-culverin cannon from the Mary Rose, a banner of the Jewish Baker’s Union, a burned Second World War ID badge belonging to Thelma Barlow of the Parnall’s Aircraft Factory (she survived, thankfully) and a cloth celebrating Ghanaian independence.

It was a fabulous project to work on, with such a range of interesting objects to write about. Since then the British Museum has partnered with the TES to run Huge History where schools work on their own museum objects. More objects being studied in the classroom is great by my book.

Fossils and dinosaurs

I really enjoyed writing about fossils, while my co-writer wrote about dinosaurs, for the Hamilton Trust. I think it was one of the most enjoyable blocks I have so far written for them, despite having also written Stone Age to Iron Age Britain, the Shang Dynasty of China, the Ancient Greeks and the history of various sports.

I got to write about some very interesting characters in the history of science, including Mary Anning, Charles Darwin and William Buckland. Mary Anning and Charles Darwin are specifically mentioned in the Key Stage 2 science curriculum, of course, and both their stories are very engaging, if very different.

Mary was the daughter of a cabinetmaker and lived in Lyme Regis. She managed to get some rudimentary schooling and learned to read and write, but that was it. She made her living by finding fossils on the beach and selling them to collectors. Most of these were wealthy, educated gentlemen dabbling in natural history who went on to publish the finds as their own. Now the specimens she uncovered are being reclaimed for her. I was excited to see a huge ichthyosaur (a marine reptile from the same time as the dinosaurs) she found in the Natural History Museum in London recently.

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Ichthyosauria.001 – Natural History Museum of London” by Drow maleOwn work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

I am very fond of Charles Darwin, and I have written about him elsewhere, but I didn’t know very much about William Buckland before writing this block for the Hamilton Trust, so it was quite a journey of discovery! I wrote the block using a ‘Take One Picture’ model, which has been used for museum teaching quite a lot. The image in question was a silhouette (very popular in the nineteenth century) of Buckland and his wife and son and several of their fossils.

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Buckland family silhouette” by Mary Buckland, née Morland (1797-1857) – http://blogs.royalsociety.org/history-of-science/2011/02/07/females-fossils-hyenas-1/ Originally taken from Elizabeth Gordon’s (1894) The Life and correspondence of William Buckland, London: John Murray. p.103.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Buckland found many Ice Age fossils in his explorations of Britain’s caves, including Kirkdale in Yorkshire and Goats Hole Cave on the Gower Peninsula of Wales. Famously, he discovered a skeleton in the latter that he named the Red Lady of Paviland and posited that she was a Roman camp follower. In reality the ‘Red Lady’ is actually a man and may date back as far as 30,000 years, a burial from the Upper Palaeolithic.

He’s more famous, though, for identifying the first dinosaur, although they weren’t called that at the time. Earlier finds of the same dinosaur, Megalosaurus, had been thought to have come from Roman war elephants. He noticed that a jaw bone looked very much like modern lizards, but much larger, and therefore coined the name. His wife, Mary, was an excellent scientific illustrator as well as a natural historian in her own right, and drew the Megalosaurus jaw in question for her husband’s publication.

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Buckland, Megalosaurus jaw” by Mary Morland (later Buckland) – http://www.lhl.lib.mo.us/events_exhib/exhibit/exhibits/dino/buc1824_l.shtml. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Quite wonderfully, he also coined the term coprolite for fossilised faeces, having first been notified by Mary Anning of strange stones found in the abdominal area of the ichthyosaurs she was finding.

The block gave me an opportunity to explore the history of science with children, and to reflect on how science works, how it is important to publish and get your name on discoveries, and the social history of the nineteenth century where women were not given the scientific kudos they deserved. I may also have revealed Buckland’s proclivity to eat every animal he came across, from bluebottles to mice on toast by way of panther. Well, I couldn’t not, could I?

Discover Darwin

I’m always a little daunted by the prospect of reading the classics. I don’t get on well with Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy, though Jane Austen is my all time favourite writer. So I didn’t expect to be able to follow the writing of Charles Darwin when I first read On the Origin of Species. Amazingly, I could, and very easily. Darwin had not written a dense scientific treatise. It was a popular book intended for a very wide audience. It’s wonderfully poetic in places.

If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to read just the last chapter of the book, or even just the final paragraph if you’re that worried. The final chapter summarises the entire book, and the last paragraph is an even more succinct precis.

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

I used this paragraph as the basis for a few lessons work on non-fiction writing for a set of lessons The Charles Darwin Trust educational consultants (including me) wrote for the London Borough of Bromley. The borough had unsuccessfully attempted to get the natural environment around Down House listed as a World Heritage Site as it was there, in Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory, rather than the Galapagos Islands or anywhere in South America, that Darwin did most of his thinking, observation and experimentation that confirmed his ideas about natural selection.

entangled bank

I contrasted Darwin’s writing with that of modern science writers such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins (in hindsight I should have included some female science writers). I wanted to get across the idea to children that writing in science doesn’t have to be impenetrable and that by writing in an engaging and even poetic way, it can bring science to a wider audience.

Milton Keynes Late Roman coin hoard in schools

I tell the story of the coin hoard being buried in AD 353 and rediscovered in 2006 elsewhere on my blog. The nature of the coin hoard, with coins of the usurper Magnentius, makes a fantastic story as well as the opportunity to introduce how knowledge of the past is constructed and look in detail at the imagery and inscriptions on Roman coins.

The hoard is now in the Buckinghamshire County Museum who applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund to make the hoard more accessible, which included putting up temporary displays in Milton Keynes schools, writing lesson plans for teachers to use and having a costumed Roman visit schools to cement interest in the topic.

I was keen to support maths teaching, which now includes learning Roman numerals, and provided some optional maths activities about timelines, coin values and work on percentages and averages based on the information on the 1456 coins. The museum wanted to use the coins to explore the movement of people and ideas so I also created activities about the various mints across the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity for instance.

The school visit entails acting out the story of Magnentius’ attempted coup and then getting to handle some of the coins from the hoard. I’m not sure which part of the day the kids enjoyed best, fighting in a pretend Roman army or actually holding real Roman coins.

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Teaching teachers about Darwin and evolution

The new Key Stage 2 curriculum has brought in various new topics, including teaching evolution in Year 6 science. Previous to this primary school biology had included variation and adaptation, the cornerstones of evolution, but not explicitly required teachers to teach Darwin’s theory. The non-statutory guidance also mentions learning about famous figures in the history of evolutionary biology including Mary Anning and Alfred Russell Wallace alongside Darwin himself.

A colleague, Ewa Prokop who is Mad About Charles Darwin (literally), wrote a children’s book about Darwin and his work (Darwin’s Wild Pursuits), exploring some of the aspects of evolution through imagined conversations he has with creatures he meets on his perambulations in the countryside around his home in Kent, Down House, where he spent the last 40 years of his life. I particularly like the last story about the orb-weaving spider who tells Darwin that one of her sisters on suffering an accident that meant she could no longer make a web learned how to hunt on the ground instead. I’m quite fond of spidery tales.

IMG_8186Ewa put together a plan to run some teacher training on evolution in Yeovil Country Park, a wonderful setting, with their rangers. I went and co-delivered that recently. Along with Ewa’s book, a precis of Darwin’s life and work (which is often misunderstood) and the steps in his theory of evolution I demonstrated a number of possible activities teachers could do with children that Darwin himself did. I was pleased to note that several of the teachers had come across the blocks I wrote on Darwin and Anning for the Hamilton Trust.

The Charles Darwin Trust, one of the organisations whose umbrella I work under, identified certain ways of working that were typical to Darwin, though not confined to him, including using everyday materials to conduct simple experiments; talking to many other people, not just scientists, about their particular expertise; and close, frequent and sustained observation of certain habitats. His method is quite accessible to primary aged children.

Experiments included wrapping unopened flower buds with kitchen muslin (with quite an open weave) to see what effect preventing insects visiting will have on the flower; taking pond mud and seeing what grows from it; and feeding carnivorous plants toenails and hair. Another simple experiment involved eating several ‘purple ones’ from a certain chocolate box (I suffer for my work, I really do!) and using the cellophane wrapper to simulate the ultraviolet eyesight of bees. If you hold them up against certain flowers (we tried celandine and wood anemone) you can see the darker markings that are not otherwise visible to our eyes that guide bees towards the nectar. Work by a team at the University of Arizona have found that this reduces the amount of nectar robbing that bumblebees undertake and so is a very successful strategy for flowering plants. This demonstrated, in a very Darwinian way, that there has been work on evolution since Darwin. This is especially important because the guidance in the national curriculum suggests not mentioning genetics.

The rangers also showed how teachers can very simply sample the environment at Yeovil Country Park with sweeping nets, tree beating and pond dipping so that children can get closer to nature, observe the animals and plants around them and start to make their own observations.

How do we know about the past?

I often think of what types of sources are used to make the stories about the past on various dodgy websites. Since I’ve been working for the Hamilton Trust I have become more aware of how many websites and books offer information and resources for teachers that don’t quote where they got their information from (even the BBC). Of course, many primary school teachers will not have studied history past the age of 14 themselves, so will not know the information, let alone have the historical skills to find out.

Not only do teachers often not know and don’t have time to find out where the information comes from, how can children (and I quote from the national curriculum) “understand how our knowledge of the past is constructed from a range of sources” if the teachers have no idea? Critical thinking skills get such high billing in the science or English curriculum, they should be there in the history curriculum too.

I tend to write blocks of work on the evidence behind the various topics I write about e.g. the Shang Dynasty of China, Ancient Greece or, currently, Benin in West Africa from AD 900-1300. I built in a discussion about sources for prehistory in the workshop I developed for the Pitt Rivers Museum (particularly as it is an anthropology museum and I wanted to show that ethnographic parallels are a frequently used, if sometimes contested, alternative source of evidence to interpret archaeological sites and artefacts). When I go out to schools to talk about Anglo-Saxons I get kids to act out the invasion according to Bede, and then pick holes in the evidence as provided by archaeology.

I have found writing about the sources of evidence for Benin’s pre-colonial history quite a challenge. Websites and books merely told the stories of various Ogisos and Obas, and the possible invasions from Ile-Ife that either they got from another website or book without references, or they assumed you knew what the main sources were.

Finally, I found several almost primary sources. Firstly, those stories about the Ogisos and Obas come from the oral histories that were told for centuries in Benin (now in south-west Nigeria, not the site of the current Republic of Benin) and written down and published in 1933 by Jacob Egharevba. If you have an account with Questia, you can read it online. But how far can we trust the oral histories that may have been reworked several times?

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Benin City by D O Dapper, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Secondly, there are the accounts by Europeans about what Benin was like after the period in question. There’s Olfert Dapper who published in 1668 (and hadn’t visited so based all his information on reports from others), Olaudah Equiano claimed to have grown up in Benin before being sold into slavery at the age of 11, but he may have been born in the Americas, and Sir Richard Burton wrote about the kingdom and other areas of West Africa during a journey in 1862. But what can the writers of these later centuries tell us of the pre-European period? Surely the mere contact with Europeans changed the society hugely, plus it’s written by outsiders who have particular agendas.

Thirdly, there’s archaeology. Not a lot of archaeology has been done in the kingdom of Benin but there is one article I found in the The Journal of African History by Graham Connagh dating back to the 1960s where he dug on the site of the former Oba’s palace and some of the levels dated back to the 13th century AD (you can find it on JSTOR). But I didn’t find any other articles on the archaeology of the kingdom of Benin. Do please point me their way if you know of any!

Having taken the teachers and children through these various sources of evidence, I am challenging them to recreate Benin City using the various rsz_IMG_8047sources. Here’s my recreation of part of the Oba’s palace based on one of the Benin bronze plaques now in the British Museum below.

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Jaymz Height-Field at the French language Wikipedia CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), via Wikimedia Commons

 

Children will have to decide whether to focus on pictorial evidence, written descriptions or archaeological discoveries, especially where they contradict each other. It’ll be interesting to see whether any of them think about focusing on one particular time in the Kingdom of Benin’s history. The evidence I have provided for this task ranges from the 12th to the 19th centuries AD. Did the city stay the same during this period? I hope there’ll be plenty of discussion (perhaps even arguments) about the reliability and validity of the evidence as classes build their models of Benin City.

Late Roman rebellion

In 2006 two metal-detectorists found a hoard of Roman coins near Milton Keynes. Archaeologists were notified and the site was excavated, and it was thought that the coins were probably buried in a pot in a rubbish heap. The coins were not particularly valuable, they were all bronze, but there were 1456 of them. They were reported as treasure the are no in Buckinghamshire County Museum.

What is fascinating about these coins is the story they tell. The coins date to the 4th century AD, mostly around AD 350. There are a couple of coins of Constantine the Great (the emperor who made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire) but many more from the reign of his sons, Constantine II, Constantius and Constans (Roman emperor’s baby name books weren’t very imaginative).

A century before this the emperor Diocletian reorganised the empire into two zones, the Western and the Eastern Empires. There was an over-emperor or Augustus who generally controlled the Eastern Empire and a junior emperor or Caesar who controlled the Western Empire. When Constantine the Great died, his three sons split the territories between them. They bickered, though, as you’d expect, and it eventually came to blows. In a battle between Constantine II and Constans, the former was killed.

Things stabilised for a while, but then Constans is said to have got very cruel and preferred the company of his barbarian bodyguards that his generals. One of these, a man called Magnentius (who is said to have had a Frankish mother and a British father) decided to make himself Augustus and Caesar and sent someone to dispatch Constans.

Eventually, Magnentius and the one surviving son of Constantine the Great, Constantius, fought. Their armies met in Dalmatia and in Frankia and eventually Magnentius was defeated and he killed himself. Constantius is supposed to have sent a servant called Paulus to Britain to punish anyone who supported Magnentius, and he got the nickname Paulus Catena or Paul the Chain for dragging people through the streets in chains.

The coins in the pot found by the metal-detectorists near Milton Keynes in 2006 were mainly coins of Constantius, Constans and Magnentius. Perhaps the owners of these coins buried them in a panic generated by Paulus Catena’s antics.

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Me at home in my late Roman outfit

Brett Thorn at the Buckinghamshire County Museum asked me to write some teacher’s material to go with the coins as part of a tour of part of the hoard to schools in Milton Keynes. I was also to devise a session where I would go in to the school in costume and let kids handle some coins from the hoard.

 

I did my first one yesterday, and it went really well. We told the very complicated story of the rebellion and burial of the coins in the hall, along with cardboard swords, laurel wreaths, purple robes and paper chains. I involved every single child from two classes in telling the story, which helped bring it to life. Later the kids remembers which friends had been Magnentius, Constans and the others.

The kids loved handling the coins, and already knew that they had to wear gloves to protect the coins from the acidic oils on their hands. I worked with a small group at a time to handle the coins, and took some Roman games to try out for the rest of the class to play while they waited.

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